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Friday, 24 January 2020

Education and privilege in Mansfield Park

These are 2 important themes in Jane Austen’s novel—they are linked to some extent, so I’ll discuss them in the same post. 
1/ In my earlier post defending Fanny Price, I already wrote about her situation—she’s sent off to live with her rich relatives from a young age. 
This is an important point, and even though Jane Austen’s always painfully aware of class, women’s position in society, and the importance of a good income, I think Mansfield Park is the one most conscious of wealth and privilege. 
When Fanny enters Mansfield, her cousins think that her ignorance of languages and geography and her lack of accomplishments is due to her stupidity, instead of lack of education. 
As she and the Bertrams grow up together, they seem to receive the same education, but she doesn’t play any musical instrument. 

2/ Note this line about Maria and Julia: 
“… it is not very wonderful that, with all their promising talents and early information, they should be entirely deficient in the less common acquirements of self-knowledge, generosity and humility. In everything but disposition they were admirably taught. Sir Thomas did not know what was wanting, because, though a truly anxious father, he was not outwardly affectionate, and the reserve of his manner repressed all the flow of their spirits before him.” (Ch.2) 
Jane Austen says something similar again later: 
“Poor Julia, the only one out of the nine not tolerably satisfied with their lot, was now in a state of complete penance, and as different from the Julia of the barouche-box as could well be imagined. The politeness which she had been brought up to practise as a duty made it impossible for her to escape; while the want of that higher species of self-command, that just consideration of others, that knowledge of her own heart, that principle of right, which had not formed any essential part of her education, made her miserable under it.” (Ch.9) 
As I wrote in the previous blog post, self-knowledge and consideration of others are the qualities most important to Jane Austen, and they’re stressed in these passages. Maria and Julia get a formal education, and have the accomplishments of a lady, but lack a moral education. It is no wonder that Mansfield Park is not very popular—it is a serious work, in which education is a central theme and the author criticises an education that neglects principle and morality. 
The passages above also apply perfectly for Henry and Mary Crawford. 
At the end of the book, Sir Thomas realises and regrets the faults of his parenting: 
“Here had been grievous mismanagement; but, bad as it was, he gradually grew to feel that it had not been the most direful mistake in his plan of education. Something must have been wanting within, or time would have worn away much of its ill effect. He feared that principle, active principle, had been wanting; that they had never been properly taught to govern their inclinations and tempers by that sense of duty which can alone suffice. They had been instructed theoretically in their religion, but never required to bring it into daily practice. To be distinguished for elegance and accomplishments, the authorised object of their youth, could have had no useful influence that way, no moral effect on the mind. He had meant them to be good, but his cares had been directed to the understanding and manners, not the disposition; and of the necessity of self-denial and humility, he feared they had never heard from any lips that could profit them.” (Ch.48) 
In comparison, Fanny lacks some of a lady’s accomplishments, but has good self-awareness and acute perceptiveness of other people’s character and feelings, which all of the Bertram children lack.
Fanny also has strong principles. There are some people who see her refusal to act in the play and refusal to marry Henry as a passivity, but there is nothing passive about holding fast to your principles, believe in yourself, and resist pressure from everyone else. 

3/ Look at the 3 guardians at Mansfield Park: Sir Thomas, Lady Bertram, and Mrs Norris. 
Lady Bertram is helpless and ineffectual as a mother. It is stated from the start: 
“To the education of her daughters Lady Bertram paid not the smallest attention. She had not time for such cares.” (Ch.2) 
Sir Thomas is severe and distant, so the education mostly falls on Mrs Norris, who is meddlesome, officious, and small-minded, with very little sense. She makes bad judgments, spoils the girls with flattery, and gives them no good model. 
Jane Austen’s heroines often have silly, useless, or neglectful parents, but Sir Thomas is the most interesting of all. He is not a tyrant, but he is severe, and he is the kind of parent who forbids his children from doing wrong, without teaching them to know right from wrong. His children therefore learn to hide things from him, and disobey him in his absence. 
This is something that resonates with me, because my mom has taught me to know right from wrong, and didn’t have to forbid me from doing things. Too often I’ve seen parents control and spy on children, or punish them for doing something they don’t allow and say “Because I said so”, instead of reasoning about why it’s wrong. 

4/ Isn’t it interesting that under such guardians, Edmund turns out all right? He has faults, and isn’t very perceptive (he’s wrong about everything except Fanny’s goodness), but overall is a sensitive, principled, honest, and kind man.   
Does that mean that in this case, nature is more important than nurture? 

5/ Let’s move onto the Price family. 
“Of her two sisters, Mrs. Price very much more resembled Lady Bertram than Mrs. Norris. She was a manager by necessity, without any of Mrs. Norris's inclination for it, or any of her activity. Her disposition was naturally easy and indolent, like Lady Bertram's; and a situation of similar affluence and do-nothingness would have been much more suited to her capacity than the exertions and self-denials of the one which her imprudent marriage had placed her in. She might have made just as good a woman of consequence as Lady Bertram, but Mrs. Norris would have been a more respectable mother of nine children on a small income.” (Ch.39) 
Fanny is disappointed in her parents. The problem with her Portsmouth home is not its poverty, but its chaos, noise, and lack of harmony and respect, and it’s because of her indifferent parents. In different ways, the Bertrams and the Prices both neglect the education of their children. 
Here, Fanny sees that her mother is similar to Lady Bertram, and acknowledges that Mrs Norris has some merit. At the same time, if we take that comparison and turn it around, Lady Bertram is similar to Mrs Price, and can get away with her indolence and irresponsibility only because of her wealth and status. Without them, she wouldn’t be seen as any better. 
At some point, there’s another comparison between the sisters: 
“Her poor mother now did not look so very unworthy of being Lady Bertram's sister as she was but too apt to look. It often grieved her to the heart to think of the contrast between them; to think that where nature had made so little difference, circumstances should have made so much, and that her mother, as handsome as Lady Bertram, and some years her junior, should have an appearance so much more worn and faded, so comfortless, so slatternly, so shabby.” (Ch.42)

6/ In Portsmouth, Fanny’s shocked by the disorder, and shocked by Susan’s manners and language. However, she comes to understand Susan. 
“... it was at least a fortnight before she began to understand a disposition so totally different from her own. Susan saw that much was wrong at home, and wanted to set it right. That a girl of fourteen, acting only on her own unassisted reason, should err in the method of reform, was not wonderful; and Fanny soon became more disposed to admire the natural light of the mind which could so early distinguish justly, than to censure severely the faults of conduct to which it led. Susan was only acting on the same truths, and pursuing the same system, which her own judgment acknowledged, but which her more supine and yielding temper would have shrunk from asserting. Susan tried to be useful, where she could only have gone away and cried; and that Susan was useful she could perceive; that things, bad as they were, would have been worse but for such interposition, and that both her mother and Betsey were restrained from some excesses of very offensive indulgence and vulgarity.” (Ch.40) 
Anyone who sees Fanny as a figure of passivity can just look at her relationship with Susan—that is a good counter-example. 
“Her greatest wonder on the subject soon became—not that Susan should have been provoked into disrespect and impatience against her better knowledge—but that so much better knowledge, so many good notions should have been hers at all; and that, brought up in the midst of negligence and error, she should have formed such proper opinions of what ought to be; she, who had had no cousin Edmund to direct her thoughts or fix her principles.” (ibid.) 
There are many things Susan doesn’t know, not having the education and privilege, and she doesn’t read—she needs to move to Mansfield for a better environment and better opportunities. But at the same time, “brought up in the midst of negligence and error”, she still knows right from wrong, and tries to fix things. 
In the character of Susan, Jane Austen again raises the question of nature vs nurture, and comments on the subject of privilege. 

7/ People usually say that Jane Austen’s heroines usually grow and gain self-knowledge throughout the book, except Fanny, who is right about everything and right the entire time (uhm… what about Anne Elliot?).   
That is not entirely true. Fanny Price does gain self-knowledge at the end of the book—it’s just not the same kind of self-knowledge that Catherine Morland and Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse come to have. 
She gains self-knowledge when she’s at her Portsmouth house. I just had a discussion with Himadri (Argumentative Old Git)—he said, Mansfield Park is about displacement and personal identity. Some critics (including Vladimir Nabokov) complain about Jane Austen staying with Fanny for the entire story and not depicting the “interesting” stuff with Maria and Henry, or Julia and Mr Yates, but the real interesting stuff happens in Portsmouth. It’s at Portsmouth that Fanny discovers who she is, and where she really belongs—that Mansfield is home.  
Perhaps that is why Mansfield Park is so dear, so personal to me. 




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